Books on consciousness
September 12, 2005 6:00 AM   Subscribe

Recommend books about consciousness!

I'm a graduate student in English, and I'm developing a dissertation project on consciousness and the novel. As part of my project I'm putting together a reading list of books - from literature, philosophy, theology, and the sciences - that deal with consciousness. I'm interested in both state-of-the-art writing about consciousness and now-outmoded, but still interesting accounts and descriptions. I'm casting a wide net, and my reading list so far includes writers like Dorrit Cohn, Freud, Sartre, Roger Penrose, Douglas Hofstadtler, Henry James, Richard Moran, and so on.

MeFites are a literate and intellectually diverse bunch, so I thought I'd ask here too! I'd be especially interested in learning more about technologically oriented discussions about consciousness, like the arguments swirling around artificial intelligence and including figures like John Searle. But I'm interested in any books you might mention, in any field - Buddhism, Christian theology, even self-help. Really, the more diverse the better!
posted by josh to Education (38 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I assume that your Hofstadter book is "The Mind's I" (co-authored with Danial Dennet, IIRC). If not, it should.
posted by plinth at 6:35 AM on September 12, 2005

Another Dan Dennet suggestion: he wrote a very interesting and very readable book about ten years ago called 'Conciousness Explained', which while certainly not as grand as its title might suggest, does offer a very neat framework for explaining how conciousness could have come to develop.
posted by cmyr at 6:44 AM on September 12, 2005

Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

He argues that "consciousness" as we know it is a relatively recent (say 3000 years) adaptation; he doesn't claim it's an adaptation in the genetic sense, merely that the development of language was something that occured alongside the development of consciousness, rather than strictly after it. Similar arguments have been made that the development of human intelligence (over much longer periods) was tied to the development of the hand.

Anyhow, he spends a lot of time attempting to address consciousness in a scientific way, then looks at literature, namely that of Homer, and claims that the writing reflects, in some aspects, that of a schizophrenic mind. He also discusses metaphor for a very long time.

An interesting book. Definitely verbose. Perhaps wrong. But interesting, and sure to give you some ideas.
posted by dsword at 6:50 AM on September 12, 2005

Also, and perhaps relating more to psychology in general as opposed to consciousness, is the work of Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate are two books he's written. The former discusses evolutionary psychology and, if I remember correctly, spends some time proposing selection mechanisms that could have led to the (genetic) development of consciousness. The latter book deals more with the notion of innate characteristics and, as the name implies, whether or not the mind is a "blank slate." (Cliff's notes: No!). I find How the Mind Works to be the better of the two, by far, but certainly both have their flaws.
posted by dsword at 6:57 AM on September 12, 2005

Good idea to do some reading about Buddhism; I would recommend Mindfulness in Plain English (free text online, also available to buy in print) or Thich Nhah Hanh's books, for example "The Miracle of Mindfulness". Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow" may also be interesting to you.
posted by teleskiving at 7:00 AM on September 12, 2005

Are you looking for metabooks concerned with consciousness (like those listed above) - books on consciousness, so to speak - or novels which speak to the topic, usually in a hidden, metaphorical or non-obvious manner? Also, it seems like the people you list come from a specific history of conciousness; are you wanting things that stray from that aspect?
posted by fionab at 7:24 AM on September 12, 2005

Minsky's The Society of Mind.
(Short Minksy blurb.)
posted by Wolfdog at 7:36 AM on September 12, 2005

Really, the more diverse the better!

Dawn - Octavia Butler (African American sci-fi-ish novel)
Sula - Toni Morrison
Clarissa - Samuel Richardson
Donna Haraway - Modest_Witness
other Haraway books
Bruno Latour - Science in Action (about how science gets made; how things become de facto and not questioned, how certain people within the realm have speaking/teaching privileges, how the conditions of possibility mean more to an invention succeeding rather than the thing itself).
posted by fionab at 7:37 AM on September 12, 2005

Check out Why We Lie : The Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind. I came across this some months ago, and it completely changed the way I thought about consciousness.

David Livingstone Smith, the author, proposes that we evolved with our conscious mind aware of only a fraction of what we think and feel. This occurred because we cannot lie without giving away clues that might give us away--the evolutionary answer to this dilemma is that our mind lies to our concious selves, in order that we can, with all sincerity, lie to others.

It's a fascinating and well-argued thesis, and I'm giving it short shrift by attempting condensing it to a paragraph. I can only say that I will never think of human consciousness the same way as I did before reading this book.
posted by curtm at 7:42 AM on September 12, 2005

David Lodge - his novels too.
posted by fionab at 7:49 AM on September 12, 2005

david deutsch's book fabric of reality touches on it. Pretty speculative stuff sometimes (usually, actually) but certainly thought provoking.
posted by clord at 7:53 AM on September 12, 2005

oh yeah, I second Fabric of Reality.
Black Culture and Black Conciousness - not the same kind of consciousness that you're talking about, but it's critical that you would know the other kind as well, in order for it to make sense.

Foucault - how institutions, disciplining practices, forms of government, madness/sanity, etc. form the normative, non-marked, expected consciousness, and how that is determined by alternate, marked, other, non-normative examples.
posted by fionab at 8:11 AM on September 12, 2005

A couple more books on brain science in the same "popular nonfiction" mode as Steven Pinker:
Andrea Rock - The Mind At Night: The New Science Of How And Why We Dream
Keith Devlin - The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved & Why Numbers Are Like Gossip
Alison Gopnik - The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind
posted by matildaben at 8:18 AM on September 12, 2005

I found The Embodied Mind by Francisco Varela, et al. (subtitled &#8216Cognitive Science and Human Experience’) very interesting. Also Andy Clark’s Being There &#8216Putting Brain, Body, and World Together Again&#8217.
posted by misteraitch at 8:34 AM on September 12, 2005

"The User Illusion" by Tor Norretranders, which I loved, is subtitled "Cutting Consciousness Down to Size." It's about how consciousness is just a sort of small user interface to much more complex, unconscious processes.

Anything by V. S. Ramachandran. The other guys (Dennet, Pinker, etc.) are all interesting, but Ramachandran is reporting from the "front line." He's a neuroscientist, not a philosopher or linguist. You might also enjoy listening to Ramachandran speak.
posted by grumblebee at 8:47 AM on September 12, 2005

A Scanner Darkly by Phillip K. Dick deals with the topic.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:00 AM on September 12, 2005

It's a book on art, not necessarily on writing, but check out Searchlight, which is about consciousness in art.

Other books that are at least tangentially related: Journey to the East by Hesse, The Works of Edmund Husserl (which is where you need to start, really), Hopscotch by Cortezar, Slaughterhouse 5 by Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Heller... All would be easy to pull examples from.
Oh, and don't forget Being and Time by Heidegger. That's what Sartre's Being and Nothingness is a reaction to...
posted by klangklangston at 9:10 AM on September 12, 2005

O'Reilly's Mind Hacks and the associated blog has lots of neat stuff in it -- though it's not, strictly, only about consciousness.

In the same vein, Inevitable Illusions is a good read about mistakes we make when we try to "reason" intuitively.
posted by kindall at 9:15 AM on September 12, 2005

David Chalmers (philosopher at the Australian National University, noted expert on consciousness and zombies) provides an exhaustive bibliography on philosophy of mind, part of which is on Consciousness and Qualia. I can recommend his book, "The Conscious Mind" as very good.
posted by tew at 9:42 AM on September 12, 2005

The Conscious Mind by David Chalmers.

And beaten to the punch by tew on preview...
posted by mcguirk at 9:45 AM on September 12, 2005

"Consciousness and the novel" -- then you must read Mikhail Bakhtain, Russian literary critic/theorist. Esp. his discussion of the relation between author and hero in the novel.
posted by yesster at 9:52 AM on September 12, 2005

Not sure if this fits the bill but anything by Alain de Botton is very good... in particular, "The Art of Travel" and "On Love"... books that feature his very well-written thinking on those subjects in modern life.
posted by DannyUKNYC at 10:06 AM on September 12, 2005

Julian Jaynes' The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Seconded -- interesting and controversial. Check out: the Julian Jaynes Society .
posted by ericb at 10:20 AM on September 12, 2005

For state-of-the-art technical description, Part IX of The Cognitive Neurosciences III.
posted by Gyan at 10:30 AM on September 12, 2005

I recommend Descartes' Error : Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, by Antonio Damasio.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:32 AM on September 12, 2005

Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. How metaphors shape our consciousness.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 11:00 AM on September 12, 2005

I put this in a post in the blue yesterday, but for online reading, David Chalmers has assembled a lot of papers on consciousness.
posted by umberto at 11:13 AM on September 12, 2005

Arthur M. Young (invented the Bell helicopter)His book is, The Reflexive Universe.
posted by hortense at 12:24 PM on September 12, 2005

Since you're writing about consciousness and literature, then you probably know about "Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human," by Harold Bloom. Bloom's audacious thesis is that humans weren't conscious before Shakespeare.
posted by grumblebee at 1:46 PM on September 12, 2005

On the novel side, you might be interested in Haruki Murakami - Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, if you haven't already read it. Other novels by him might also be relevant.

Also, I notice you're at Harvard - have you thought about trying to talk to someone in the philosophy dept. either there or at MIT, to get suggestions on the more technical side of philosophy of mind? This is the kind of thing that would mostly be found in journals, so might be easier to just ask a professional about. Or checked out the colloquium schedule from either? It appears that as soon as Sept. 16, Fred Dretske is giving a talk at MIT called "Knowing what you think vs. knowing that you think it". This is bound to be fairly technical, though. I'd guess that colloquia like this are reasonably open to interested academics in the area.
posted by advil at 2:00 PM on September 12, 2005

I was going to suggest Murakami, The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or anything of his, as well.
posted by scazza at 2:10 PM on September 12, 2005

Well it's not a book, but there was a new movie out here. Comcast has it on Starz On Demand, I think. The weirdest part was about a japanese guy's research into water crystals which is under "Phenomena" and "Water Crystals" on the left... Some other very interesting work.
posted by prodevel at 2:45 PM on September 12, 2005

Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (review here), while it is a book about memetics, concludes with some startling and refreshing ideas about the nature of consciousness.
posted by ldenneau at 2:56 PM on September 12, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you for all these great answers everyone! (And if there are more, please keep them coming!) I'm familiar with some of these books - especially the more 'literary' ones, e.g., Bakhtin, Murakami, etc. - but a lot of them are new to me, and it's great to be reminded in any case. And advil, I will be attending all sorts of conferences in the Boston area on consciousness - I'm lucky to be in a big metropolitan area. I'm also planning to talk to Richard Moran, a philosopher here at Harvard, so I might as well add his book to this thread for those who are interested: Authority and Estrangement.

As you can probably see from the breadth of these suggestions, 'consciousness' is a big topic - so in answer to your question, fionab, really anything even tangentially related is of interest; in a certain sense, the more far-flung it is, the better!
posted by josh at 3:44 PM on September 12, 2005

The Search for Authenticity and Psychotherapy Isn't What You
by James Bugental
The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life by Daniel Stern
Books by Stan Grof on non-ordinary states of consciousness, e.g., Adventure of Self-Discovery
Zen and the Brain by James Austin MIT Press
posted by madstop1 at 5:08 PM on September 12, 2005

I just finished reading Robert J. Sawyer's new book Mindscan which was a pretty cool science fiction treatment about the nature of consciousness. He had a list in the back of his book which is also reprinted on his web site.
posted by dgeiser13 at 5:52 PM on September 12, 2005

I have lots of other suggestions on African American literature and film; if you're interested, my email's in my profile. Usually people will read one or two non-DWWM (dead white western males), consider themselves 'diverse' and call it a day. If you want to go beyond that, it would make your dissertation stand out considerably. African American, Caribbean, Asian American and other postcolonial work has lots and lots to say about migration, immigration, consciousness, identity formation, politics, ethics, legality, gender, and nationalistic themes; if any of those strike your fancy, I'd be happy to help come up with more texts for your lists. I know this sounds snarky, but it's not meant to be; just trying to point out that even though you asked for diverse texts, many, many of them fall into the same category. Your own work - especially if on traditional western philosophy and consciousness (which most of your above references are about) - will be deeper and more interesting if even remotely inflected with a greater world view.

Aime Cesaire
Naipaul's "A House for Mr. Biswas"
Derek Walcott (especially his poem, Omeros which draws on Homer's Iliad and the Odyssey)
Oscar Micheaux
early slave narratives
Marcus Garvey
Claudia Tate's work on psychoanalysis, literary texts, black identity, consciousness
Saidiya V. Hartman's amazing Scenes of Subjection
Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America
Langston Hughes, and filmmaker Isaac Julien's film Looking for Langston
Franz Fanon, especially Black Skin, White Masks and filmmaker Isaac Julien's treatment of it
Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction
Jan Radway's Reading the Romance (more cultural studies, but about why women read romance novels - one of the first studies of that ilk; talks about how the reading defines the reader, etc. Might be useful?!)

It's not a typical corpus of consciousness studies, but it's critical to understand if you want to know what the normative version of consciousness is defining itself against. That's Foucault's main argument: to have sanity you need madness, to have society you have to have prisons, to have heterosexual normative identities you have to pit against homosexual 'alternative' -- and as such, the alternatives are a vital component of the normative identity. It's the other that makes the primary. Thus, my one plea to you would be to make an attempt to understand that against which you pit your normative conveyors of consciousness. It won't only make you more interesting to read, it will make your argument stronger. Obviously not all or even many of these texts will be up your intellectual alley, but if you have a deep understanding of where your own category fits in to the larger picture, and not just assume that it is the larger picture, you're more than half way there already. Obviously you already get this because you're asking for other suggestions in a public forum, and I'm probably revealing more about my own misgivings of the state of the academy right now, but I felt the need to list a bunch of other options for furture reference. If you have absolutely any interest in any of these things, drop me a line and I'm more than happy to help. God knows it would be a good distraction for a fellow (literature) grad student! It's a win-win situation!
posted by fionab at 5:53 PM on September 12, 2005

"An Anthropologist on Mars" by Oliver Sacks. Seven stories about people with neurological damage. It is an easy read and gives you a different perspective on consciousness.
posted by phewbertie at 2:13 AM on September 13, 2005

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